How 4 companies use mobile apps to court customers

IT is on the hot seat to step up its mobile game as businesses strive to get closer to their customers. Here's how four tech departments are meeting that challenge.

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The mobile opportunity: When you're a small bank trying to differentiate yourself in the market by targeting the Gen Y crowd, adding another branch or another high-yield savings product just isn't going to cut it. Not only was First Trade Union Bank's target audience comfortable with the idea of mobile banking, they expected nothing less than being able to take care of all of their banking needs via mobile without ever having to step foot inside a physical branch.

With that in mind, the bank made a decision three years ago to move away from a branch strategy and pursue mobile with vengeance. The goal: To offer its customers a mobile experience that was on par with what the big banks and online-only upstarts like Ally and Simple could deliver.

"If you can engage a Gen Y customer through their phone, you have the ability to create habits and make the relationship more sticky," says Pete Chapman, the bank's senior vice president of emerging technologies. "We need to get to the point where our customers are logging into their mobile bank app multiple times every day."

What they launched: In February 2012, the bank rolled out its first mobile app, for both iPhone and Android, which allows customers to make deposits by taking a picture of a check. Soon after, in June, First Trade followed up with a full mobile banking app, also available on the iPad, which lets customers tend to about 80% of their banking needs via their phones, including opening accounts, initiating transfers, requesting checking balances and managing their funds.

First Trade then made a decision to be among a handful of banks offering a mobile payment app. Released this summer, FT Pay, powered by the LevelUp mobile payment network, lets First Trade customers link to a debit card of their choice and make mobile payments at participating stores while earning rewards.

The technical details: Like most banks its size, First Trade doesn't have a deep enough IT bench to develop online or mobile infrastructure from scratch so it had to rely on licensing pre-built services from a variety of technology partners. "We could have hired five developers with a budget of over $700,000 for salaries and built everything from scratch, but we ruled that out pretty quickly," Chapman says. "Our approach was to find a partner that understands mobile apps really well and can create an engaging experience to allow us to focus on what we do well -- banking. That way, we can get to market quicker and with less expense."

The greatest pain point: Partnerships are great, but only if the partner is right, Chapman says. Most banks licensing technology find themselves with a me-too product offered by dozens of competitors. First Trade took a different approach with its FT Pay app. Since LevelUp was local, Chapman was able to spend hours on site, providing input into the development strategy and helping fine-tune the app to support specific rewards opportunities for First Trade customers. "Partner management is absolutely something you have to consider," he says. Getting to know senior leadership and the partner's technical roadmap is critical for any initiative to be a success, Chapman advises.

The payoff: Chapman estimates that First Trade has spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars on its mobile app portfolio so far -- compared with having to invest at least $1 million to open up a new branch. While it's too soon to gauge entrenchment of the mobile payment app because it's been available only a few months, the bank has seen triple-digit growth in its mobile banking usage and better retention rates for checking account openings. Says Chapman: "All that has to do with the mobile technology we're putting out there."

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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